Vitamins have some very specific roles in our bodies and play a big role in energy production. Our bodies cannot make them but also cannot function without them. They come from the food we eat. Since they exist in many different foods, eating a variety is the only way of getting them all. Thus, to avoid deficiencies, a well-balanced diet is needed with diversity and moderation.
Food Acupuncture: Vitamins & Minerals
Small but significant: Tiny amounts big results Structuring/building/connecting/energizing/repairing/healing…
The power of vitamins comes from the power of real food
The food you eat every day should provide the complete spectrum of nutrients with all the colours of the rainbow.
Throughout the 20th century public health messages related to nutrition have advised us to reduce fat, limit cholesterol, increase fibre, get more calcium, take vitamins C, D and E and so on. However, recent scientific findings are telling us that the health effects associated with the food we eat derive from the synergistic interaction of nutrients and other compounds in our diet.
As a result of this new knowledge, nutrient-based recommendations have shifted towards guidelines based on foods and eating habits, such as preparing healthier menus. As a consequence, we are exposed to an overwhelming tsunami of information which covers a range of mixed messages about vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fibre, and proteins, but also how these relate to dozens of different diseases and their outcomes. There is so much information available to us that it is almost impossible to judge what is credible advice and what guidelines should be followed, as opposed to what is completely misleading or false. Furthermore, driven by sensationalism, studies with outlandish findings often get the most coverage in the media, be it electronic or otherwise. As the subject is both confusing and controversial, it is particularly difficult for the general public to distinguish between good and bad advice.
In this series, we will try to focus mainly on vitamins, minerals and supplements. We will also try to clarify their roles in regard to health, as well as their differences; in this way, we hope to give you a better understanding of the subject. The aim here is to give you the backbone of information and basic terminology you might need before you start thinking about taking vitamins and supplements for your health, beyond diet alone.
Variety: remember the colours of the rainbow;
“building” a healthier plate should be the aim.
The food we eat provides our bodies with the nutrients that are needed for growth and survival. In this sense, everything we eat has a dramatic impact on the body’s composition, and on our physical and mental health. The impact can be manipulated through the nutrient content and timing of our diet for performing many specific physiological functions. The nutrients are broadly divided into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins, which are needed in large amounts to create energy by the cells in the body, and to form the structure of our bodies.
Here, however, we will mainly focus on micronutrients. They are known as such because these are vitamins and minerals that our bodies need only in tiny amounts. Unlike macronutrients, they do not provide energy, but they are just as important as they are vital for hundreds of physiological reactions and processes within the body, including digestion and absorption. Even small fluctuations in the intake of micronutrients can have a significant impact on the biochemistry of composition, health and performance of the body.
Nutrients in the food are transported and digested in reactions driven by enzymes, especially proteins. These are produced in physical and chemical activities occurring in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, liver and small intestine.
Once all of the nutrients are broken down into their simplest forms, they are taken up into the cells of the digestive tract in order to be transported throughout the entire body in the blood stream. This process is known as absorption. Via the circulatory system, they ultimately reach their target organs and cells and then do the work they came to do in the first place.
To understand why we need vitamins and minerals, it is best to first understand what they are, what they do and which foods are the best sources of some of these nutrients. It is also important to clarify some contradictory information that exists, especially with regard to supplements. This is best done through providing accurate, objective, evidence-based findings.
Vitamins: What are they?
Unlike bacteria, fungi and plants we have evolved as a species unable to make vitamins ourselves, with the exception of vitamin D. This is possibly due to the fact that these nutrients are readily available in the food we eat. Yet, this evolutionary path differs from other species, such as birds that can make vitamin C in their livers. We need to get vitamins daily from our food, but as they are present in very small quantities, a balanced diet is particularly important. For instance, a slice of bread weighs about 28g of which vitamins comprise only 0.005%, a mere 1.48mg.
Vitamins are chemicals of unrelated families of organic compounds found naturally in living organisms, namely plants and animals. They are called organic compounds because they contain carbon, and are essential for our bodies to function normally. There are two types of vitamins which differ by the way they dissolve, which in turn determines how they get into the blood stream, how the body transports and stores them, and eventually gets rid of the excess.
Water-soluble vitamins, such as the B-vitamins (apart from B12, being very big and only animal origin) and vitamin C, are dissolved in the watery parts of fruits, vegetables and grains. Their passage through the body is relatively straightforward, as these vitamins are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and then transported freely in the blood to reach their targets. Once they are digested, these vitamins are taken up directly into the blood stream, because blood plasma is water based.
As the system is efficiently circulating these vitamins in the blood stream, most of them are easily passed out via the kidneys. They are not stored in the body for long periods of time, as they are quickly used and the excess is excreted mainly through urine or sweat. A daily intake of less than 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of these water-soluble vitamins can lead to a deficiency, so we must ensure that these vitamins are present in the food we eat daily. However, once we figure out the logistics of transport and storage, the vitamins are left to do the work they came to do.
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, are found in foods like dairy products, butter and oils. The journey into the blood stream is a bit more adventurous for this group of vitamins: in order for them to be absorbed bile is needed as it breaks down fats, allowing the vitamins to enter the lymphatic system, and finally to reach the blood stream.
As these vitamins cannot make use of the watery nature of blood, they need something else to move them around. They are therefore usually coupled with a protein to transport them through the body. As the turnover of fat is lower than that of water, fat-soluble vitamins are stored more efficiently in the body. Similarly, they are not readily excreted, but are stored in fat cells and liver for a considerable amount of time.
We are therefore less likely to become deficient with these vitamins, and with the exception of vitamin B12, fat-soluble vitamin deficiencies are less common than those of water-soluble vitamins. However; if fat is not part of an individual’s diet, then they will likely have suboptimal fat absorption which may lead to a deficiency, as these vitamins move in the blood stream bound to dietary fat.
There is some confusion surrounding the term vitamin that needs to be clarified, namely that 'vitamin' does not necessarily mean one specific molecule. They are a family of related complex chemicals, which appear in different forms. The term vitamin actually means any chemical compound that has a certain vitamin’s activity in the body.
An example of this is vitamin A, which has many important functions in our body, such as aiding foetal development and the development of eyesight. We can get the benefits of vitamin A from different sources in our diet. From plant sources, we get beta-carotene which is a precursor to vitamin A, and therefore has vitamin A activity. Similarly, from animal products, we get retinol which also has vitamin A activity. A similar situation also exists with the B vitamins that appear in eight different forms, each with a different chemistry and a different function.
The terminology is often used interchangeably. For example, some people might be talking about vitamin A but say beta-carotene instead, even though the two have completely different chemical structures.
In the next article we will talk more about How Vitamins Work.